J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Visiting Stone Structures of the Northeast

Earlier this month I posted a couple of times about the milestones in and around Boston, and proposed that someone (else) compile a complete map of them.

In a comment, James Gage reported that his mother, Mary Gage, is at work on a database of milestones all over Massachusetts, and would welcome additions, particularly west of Springfield.

The Gages maintain the Stone Structures website, devoted to all sorts of ways people pile and stand up stone: milestones, gravestones, root cellars, walls, arches, &c. They offer forms for documenting structures, and folks can email them with new reports and questions. The Gages also make their research and photography available through Powwow River Books.

For example, the image above shows the Sherborn town pound, originally built to confine loose animals and preserved as a vestige of the rural past. Another once-common stone building was a root cellar, as the site explains:
Root Cellars have been used since the 18th century to store turnips, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, potatoes, and other crops through the cold winter months. These crops were used for human consumption but more importantly to feed dairy cows, beef cattle, and sheep. The vegetables provided critical vitamins and other nutrition necessary to keep up milk production, fatten cattle, and improve the live birth rate of sheep in the early spring. By the mid-1800’s, root cellars became a means to store crops destined for the markets until mid-winter or later when much higher prices could be commanded. Root cellars became largely obsolete with the introduction of modern refrigeration and switch to feeding livestock with corn and other grains along with silage stored in silos.
James Gage has authored Root Cellars in America, a photographic study of the form.

I was a little wary when I saw that Powwow River Books publishes a couple of titles on “America’s Stonehenge,” the New Hampshire tourist attraction that has all sorts of myths associated with it. For example, in the mid-1900s marine biologist Barry Fell claimed that markings at the site were ancient Eurasian languages, the sort of wild idea that academic archeologists wearily refute.

But Mary Gage’s guides to the site seem more level-headed, arguing that it was used by Native Americans over many centuries until around 1600. Farmers of European descent in the 1700s and 1800s used the stones for practical, prosaic purposes. Only in the early 1900s was it promoted as “Mystery Hill,” a site to visit—perhaps a reflection (like Stone Structures itself) of growing American nostalgia for a rural past vanishing beneath industrialization and mechanized farming techniques.


RFuller said...

Let's not forget "Norumbega".....

Mark B. said...

This makes me wonder, as with wells, what happened to root cellars as property was developed into housing? I have a particular interest in Boston's Jamaica Plain, and am aware of a single well found under turf in a back yard. At one time, every house had a well, and some would have had root cellars as well. Did they fill in the root cellars, or use the stones for foundations?